It was often done in the printing-office on the edge of a smutted table, with a dozen people talking; but there is never a case in which the reader of the finished article is not free to fancy it may have been excogitated in luxurious leisure, amid the fumes of a perfumed pipe, by a genius in a Persian dressing-gown reclining under a bower of roses.
But formal perfection can never compensate for the absence of life and of moral sensibility. Too prone to prove and to demonstrate, neither a pure aesthete nor a very deep psychologist, and an ideologist rather than an idealist, Hugo represented all that most irritated James in France: national conceit, theorizing, absence of humour.
The poet appealed to the French taste for bombast and to their innate love of the grandiose. France occasionally produces individuals who express the national conceit with a transcendent fatuity which is not elsewhere to be matched. A foreign resident in the country may speak upon this point with feeling; it makes him extremely uncomfortable.
Such persons desire to enjoy in a tranquil and rational manner the various succulent fruits of French civilization, but they have no fancy for being committed to perpetual genuflections and prostrations. If they could, he says, the result would be most favourable to their intellectual health.
Auguste Le Prévost | Revolvy
The ironical summary of the novel leaves no doubt as to what the reviewer thought of its author. It offended his taste for conciseness and perfection of form.
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As a poet he was very unequal, and if he produced things of extraordinary beauty James particularly notices the pieces about children he also committed gross and extravagant faults. Besides, he had no sense of humour and as a philosopher had nothing of the smallest consequence to say.
Only later, when he no longer wrote about them, did James begin to see these two poets in a more favourable light. But his first reaction is extremely significant. James despised their lack of measure, their verbosity and the extreme seriousness with which they took themselves.
On the other hand, he did not render justice to the better part in them: if they lacked measure they did not lack force, if they were sometimes vulgar they could also be sublime. James had the same reaction when he looked at the paintings of Rubens, another full-blooded and exuberant artist. He himself advocates both life and art.
But Hugo too often lets himself be carried away by his force, by his powerful imagination; instead of endeavouring to get at life progressively, to keep the distance necessary to render it in its fullness, Hugo rushes on it and partly crushes it in the process. The painter, he says in Transatlantic Sketches, might have been interesting if he had not painted so much by improvisation. James rejects both the mere chisel of the aesthete and the uncontrolled energy of the poet. There can be no art without life but life is best rendered when the artist remains at a sufficient remove from it.
James proposes to disintegrate the whole block of material and to show how Browning would have worked his documents had he been a storyteller instead of a poet. He emphasizes the difference between the world of the poet—who, having only to express his inner self, is allowed greater liberty—and the world of the novelist who must see that the characters refer to each other rather than to their author, who must find a central consciousness, extract the point at which the various implications of interest most converge and try to make all the parts fuse together.
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Like the novelist the poet must be intelligent about life and aware of the part played by the moral sense. He must not content himself with presenting the superficial traits of his theme: he must also extract its latent meaning and show it to his readers. Though this is true there is more than that in poetry, but James often confuses it with prose and measures it by the same yard-stick. Benson and Auguste Monod New York, , p. James was probably unaware of the touch of acerbity under the amenity of the tone. Sainte-Beuve must have been jealous of the young poet who had succeeded in a field which he himself had explored without success in Joseph Delorme thirty years before.
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